Picks of the Year: 2008

by Walter Simmons



Once again I come up with fewer than the prescribed number of selections. I hasten to add, however, that this is not a reflection on the quality of new releases, but, rather, attributable to my own scattered musical involvements. This year I offer one “official” selection, but this one is absolutely a no-brainer: Geoffrey Burleson’s historic, masterful, pioneering survey of the twelve brilliant piano sonatas of Vincent Persichetti, reviewed by both Peter Burwasser and me in Fanfare 31:6. Both my colleague and I pretty much agree, and our reviews speak for themselves. This set is an indispensable acquisition for all listeners interested in American music, American piano music, 20th-century piano music, … It is simply indispensable. Once you hear it, you will never again refer to Persichetti as “the guy who wrote all that band music.” One more point: In my review of this set I mentioned that I was involved in a project to record this same music for Naxos. That project has been canceled (for reasons unrelated to the Burleson recording), so listeners who were planning to wait for a less expensive alternative are advised to grab the New World release. 

Although my own involvement as producer prevents my listing it as a Pick of the Year selection, I would like to direct readers to Naxos 8.559347, also reviewed in 31:6. This release comprises two “symphonic masses”—orchestral works that follow the structure of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. The two composers are Nicolas Flagello and Arnold Rosner, and, despite their shared source of inspiration and the gross structural similarity of the two works, they are worlds apart stylistically. However, having been familiar with the two for more than thirty years, I believe that they are both stunning compositions that will appeal greatly to listeners who enjoy 20th-century romanticism. They are conducted on this recording by John McLaughlin Williams, who has proven to be an inspired—and inspiring—interpreter of neo-romantic music. And the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine plays like a world-class ensemble for him. 

I have one more item to mention: It wasn’t released during the past year, and it isn’t even available at all right now. But it is my biggest discovery of the past twelve months: Bernard Herrmann’s operatic adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Herrmann regarded this as his magnum opus, and worked on it from 1943 until 1951. He wanted desperately to see it mounted, but this did not happen within his lifetime. However, he did preside over a recording of it in 1966, which was released as a set of LPs first on Pye, then on Unicorn in 1972. It was reissued on CD by Unicorn/Kanchana during the early 1990s, but that set is no longer available. I remember when it was first issued on Unicorn, but at that point I wasn’t interested enough in Herrmann to pursue it. I was finally introduced to it only recently by a friend, and was simply blown away by it! So much atmosphere, so much intensity, so much irresistible vocal writing! Nothing I’ve ever heard by Herrmann comes close to the depth of expression found in this work. I do not know who currently owns the rights to this recording, but, considering that Herrmann is taken far more seriously as a composer today than he was thirty or forty years ago, I can’t believe that a reissue of this opera wouldn’t be snapped up by thousands of enthusiasts.

PERSICHETTI Piano Sonatas: Nos. 1-12 • Burleson • NEW WORLD 80677-2 (2 CDs)